Charting Decline of American Labor Movement, Idealizing Communism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

Charting Decline of American Labor Movement, Idealizing Communism


Byline: Arnold Beichman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A quarter century ago, Daniel Bell, one of the country's leading academic intellectuals, wrote: "The death of socialism is the most tragic - and unacknowledged - fact of the twentieth century." That authoritative obituary hasn't fazed John Sweeney, American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president, whose faith in socialism is undiminished. Such leadership helps explain why contemporary American labor is facing a crisis, probably insoluble, of vast proportions.

In "State of the Union: A Century of American Labor," Nelson Lichtenstein examines how trade unionism fell from its pinnacle of power during the early years of the CIO and later in the 1950s when the AFL and CIO merged. From 1948 to 1964, as the author points out, every Democratic presidential candidate launched his campaign with a Labor Day rally in Detroit's Cadillac Square. No more. Labor used to be a major news story and a major journalistic beat. It no longer is. Few newspapers today have labor reporters. American labor is now a subject left to academic intellectuals, usually social democrats, as their research beat.

Mr. Lichtenstein gives two reasons for American labor's decline: the implacable hostility of corporate management to "the power, or even the existence of trade unionism itself" and, second, "the white governing class in the American South, which had been supportive of many early New Deal initiatives, turned on the unions, with an unprecedented ferocity when the racial implications of mass unionism became apparent." One reason he does not give is that the AFL-CIO had become, thanks to onetime President Lane Kirkland and his successor, the incumbent John Sweeney, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party.

In an attempt to createa Labor Party they turned American labor over to the Democrats. At one time Kirkland was pressing the AFL-CIO unions to enter Democratic Party primaries but that was going a little too far and cooler heads prevailed.

Under Mr. Sweeney, incumbent Republican members of Congress with sterling pro-labor voting records found that at election time the AFL-CIO supported their Democrat opponents in the spirit of the Walrus and the Carpenter sobbing as they feasted on the innocent oysters. In 1992, a banner over the union headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced "AFSCME is Clinton country." And most unions then agreed with that slogan.

The pre-merger AFL hewed to the political strategy of its founding president, Samuel Gompers, embodied in the slogan: Reward your friends and punish your enemies. Sweeneyism, however, means double-crossing friends and allies in order to promote the Democratic Party left.

A labor movement, long in thrall to the Democratic Party, is changing dramatically, a change of which Mr. Lichtenstein seems unaware. Donald Lambro, this newspaper's chief political correspondent, reported March 11: "Top union officials are breaking away from the lockstep, Democratic loyalties of the past. The Bush administration is developing a cozier relationship with the Teamsters, the Carpenters, the Services Employees International and other unions."

Teamster President James P. Hoffa has told his members and AFL-CIO officials that the unions were not created "to become ATM machines for the Democratic National Committee. …

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